Goetz's Piano Quintet: Gotta Have That Bass

The term "piano quintet" actually designates a variety of five-person ensemble combinations. As mentioned earlier, by far the most standard group involves piano + string quartet or piano-violin-violin-viola-cello. However, other groupings are possible: piano-violin-viola-viola-cello (Paul Juon), piano-violin-viola-cello-cello (Henri-Jean Rigel), piano-oboe-violin-viola-cello (Théodore Dubois), piano-flute-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), piano-clarinet-horn-violin-cello (Zdeněk Fibich), piano-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn (Beethoven), etc.

The standard ensemble of piano + string quartet has the advantage of matching the piano's wide range with four instruments that cover the same tonal space... almost. Truth be told, the piano actually goes more than an octave lower than the lowest note on the cello. A handful of composers have apparently felt that the strings should match the piano in the lower regions, and so have written piano quintets for piano-violin-viola-cello-double bass.

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz (1840-1876)... I'm drawing a blank on some sort of beard-related joke. Come up with your own!

Herman Goetz was a German-Swiss composer who wrote such a quintet. Take a listen to the opening of the first movement. Throughout the sombre, moiling introduction, you may be able to detect the double bass grumbling along down below. Then, at 1:34, the mood changes... (I'd suggest listening at least until 3:41, when we hit the repeat sign.)

The drama promised and forewarned in the slow introduction, bursts from its proverbial dam and flows along "Allegro con fuoco", lively and with fire! Weeeeeee! In those downward, scalar gestures that begin the section, you can really hear the double bass go. To my ears it adds serious "heft", a word I use for the sense of weight being heaved about, but also for the sort of raspy, onomatopoeic quality you hear when the double bass bow digs into the strings. This instrument reminds you that bowed string instruments make their sound by rubbing or scraping wires, hairs, guts, or other strings perpendicularly against each other, a fact that the melodiousness of the violin, viola, and even cello seem to mask.

One more example: here's the last movement, a sprightly yet still hefty sort of dance. The double bass has some great moments, adding some weight to the section marked "pesante" or ponderous at 0:37 (which is an interesting juxtaposition of weightiness and dancing rhythms), doubling the cello at the octave in the fugal section (starting 1:33, bass in at 1:41ish), the weird, trembling fade out at 2:55, and of course, the killer dash to the ending starting at 4:40.

Check out the other movements as well! Have a grounded, bass-heavy day!

Arensky's Piano Quintet: The Little Fugue that Could

The last movement of Arensky's Piano Quintet made me laugh. When I first heard it there was something rather humorous about ending a grand composition with a movement half as long as any of the others that starts as a powerful fugue "in modo antico" (meaning "in olden style") that runs out of steam after less than a minute. What was Anton thinking?!

First off, to write music "in olden style" during the Romantic era usually means you're about to hear some fugues. (In case you don't know, a fugue is when a melodic theme enters one instrument at a time in independent layers. It gets very dense very quickly.) Fugues are difficult to write (and difficult to listen to unless you practice) due to the very real possibility of cacophony when more than one melody is sounding at once, requiring a composer of exceptional skill. (This is part of the reason J.S. Bach, the mind-bendingest fugue-o-phile of them all, was revered in the history-conscious nineteenth century, and has remained so to this day.) So all this "in modo antico" in the last movement had me primed to expect some major counterpoint!

But... That doesn't actually seem to happen. First off, just by glancing at the average length of movements, the final one stands out for coming in at around 3 minutes, while the first three of the quintet average 6.5 minutes. Secondly... well, go ahead and give the piece a listen. Note the powerful beginning and, also, when the mood changes. I'll wait...

Finished? Ok! It's a nice piece, yes? Bold at the beginning. Then lush. Then a scintillating and joyous ending. But, what about that "in modo antico"? It starts as a long-striding fugue with a strong, easy-to-catch theme. And then at about 45 seconds, it just stops. Fugue done! And what does the rest of the movement consist of, you may ask? The lyrical middle part that builds to a lovely climax is actually a second movement quotation of the theme that is put through variations. Then the joyous part at 2:08 is a first movement quotation of the main theme complete with identical ending.

It was as though Arensky said to himself, "For this last movement I will write a fugue in the grand style of Bach! [The sounds of writing, frustrated "humpfs" from composer, the crumpling of paper.] You know what? Forget it! I've got about 45 seconds of fugue; why not just get this thing done and bring back some of those sweet Romantic-sounding moments I wrote from earlier movements?"

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as  Scriabin  and  Roslavets .

Anton Stepanovich Arensky (1861-1906), pictured here sporting identical mustaches as Scriabin and Roslavets.

That's how I heard it at first. But I've actually changed my mind. The actual fugal part of Arensky's finale may be short, but the true significance resides in the theme itself. Because if you listen to the whole composition, you realized that you've heard that theme before. Check out the first 5 seconds of the piece, a salutation in the piano that bursts onto the scene without further elaboration.

It's the fugue theme!

Now listen to a grand climax that brings the Theme and Variations movement to a fierce halt. Start at 4:20. It's the beginning of the seventh variation with some galloping triplets in the piano with the theme entering staggered first on the viola, then violin 2, then violin 1. (It's not technically a fugue, but the effect is rather dense and contrapuntal.) The intensity increases to 4:48 where, in a fit of fortissimo, the piano plays some dramatic chords, that are answered by lunging runs in the strings before everything comes crashing down in a fortississimo haze.

It's the fugue theme!

This knowledge will change the way you hear. The appearance of this odd fragment in the first and second movements will be heard as presages of the final fugue theme. And the return of sections from the first and second themes in the last movements can then be heard as simply returning the favor. The stunted last movement becomes a matter of equilibrium and retrospection. You could even say that it reframes "in olden style" to draw attention to the temporal nature of the musical experience... #mindblown